Do your children need a nutritional boost? Peta Bee investigates the divisive topic of supplements

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If there’s an issue in nutrition that is guaranteed to divide experts it is supplementation, even more so when it comes to children. Should we or shouldn’t we encourage kids to pop a pill to make up any dietary shortfall? It’s a camp that is split so definitively that controversy will always reign whenever the question is raised.

It’s hardly surprising. When pediatricians at the University of California investigated the issue a few years ago, they found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that many children who are given supplements don’t really need them. And children with inadequate diets who could probably benefit from a vitamin pill are the least likely to be given them.

Of course, children who eat a varied diet should not need to take vitamins or any other supplements. But, really, does anyone have a child who always sits neatly in this norm? I certainly don’t. For an age group that grows so rapidly and is prone to picky eating, popping a pill containing essential nutrients is a safety net that even the Department of Health recommends for all those aged 6 months up to 5 years. But even up to 12 and the early teens there can be benefits from pill-popping for specific sub-groups. So what, when and why should you give them to your children? Here we review the evidence to come up with the top five supplements for children.

For fussy kids

In an ideal world, children would eat a wide range of foods that negate the need for supplementation. Any mother will tell you that this is often not the case. Primary school aged children are notoriously picky eaters often refusing to consume certain healthy foods, thereby limiting their intake of valuable nutrients. But what about older children? My 9-year-old son is a case in point: will eat vegetables, flatly refuses all fruit. At times when he is run down or I feel his resistance is low (usually during the winter), I feel a top up is a good insurance policy.

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For an indoor lifestyle:

Latest figures show that the number of children with vitamin D deficiency has soared by more than 200 per cent in five years, partly as a result of a lack of exposure to sunlight. GP Dr Ellie Cannon says the average British toddler only receives around 27 per cent of the vitamin D intake they need. According to Vitamin D Misssion, a public awareness campaign, parents should give their children supplements or fortified foods to avoid a return to ‘Victorian’ levels of problems like rickets, caused by vitamin D deficiency. By far the best source of vitamin D is sunlight, but as it weakens in the winter months supplies are low.

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For attention problems:

Oily fish have been linked to many health benefits because they are such a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids, in particular a substance called DHA. For children the most significant effects of a high omega-3 consumption are on the brain and they seem to be particularly helpful to those with ADHD or learning difficulties. A trial published in the Journal of Attention Disorders earlier this year suggested that when children with ADHD are given an omega-3 pill to be taken alongside prescription medicines, their medication can be reduced, lowering the risk of side effects from the drugs. According to the ADHD charity Addiss, omega 3 fish oil supplements should be available free for children with the condition on the NHS. Dr Sarah Schenker, a nutritionist, says the best source of omega 3 is oily fish such as mackerel, tuna and herring. But if your child resists, then “supplements are a way of cutting out the middle man for fussy and non-fish eaters”.

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For the illness-prone:

There is an age at which, no matter how healthily you feed them, a child seems prone to getting every virus and sickness bug doing the rounds. In a randomized trial of pre-school aged children attending nurseries, researchers found that a daily dose of a common probiotic substantially reduced episodes of diarrhoea and respiratory tract infections. In the study, the subjects who were aged 6 month to 3 years were given a daily dose of the beneficial gut bacterium lactobacillus reuteri, naturally present in many foods and commonly used in supplements, for three months. Research has also shown that probiotic supplementation can be helpful after a course of antibiotics as it helps to restore healthy gut flora.

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For fruit and veg refuseniks:

Reports that scurvy, a potentially fatal disease caused by a lack of vitamin C, is making a comeback among the UK’s children set alarm bells ringing a couple of years back. Statistics showed that the number of children admitted to hospital with scurvy soared by over 50 per cent in the three years between 2006-2009 and it is more common among those who consume minimal fruit and vegetables, among the richest source of the vitamin. There are ways of sneakily increasing your child’s vitamin C intake (add pureed vegetables to pasta sauces, serve home made soups), but a supplement can help to boost levels.

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